Lights, Camera, Action: An Interview With Legendary Stuntman Gary Kent

From working with the Hell’s Angels to close encounters with the Manson Family, Kent has seen it all.

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Simply put, Gary Kent is a badass. At 86 years old, he has lived a life straight out of the movies and racked up an impressive resume as a stuntman, director, writer, producer, and actor. He’s best known for his work on grindhouse and exploitation genres, but even though he is tough as nails, he also possesses a heart of gold. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on the horizon, I spoke with Kent about his career as a stuntman and the stories that influenced Tarantino’s latest film.

I recently watched David Gregory's new documentary about director Al Adamson. In it, you mentioned you sort of conned your way into stunt work due to lack of experience. Can you elaborate more on how you got started in the stunt business?

Gary Kent: I saw a Frank Sinatra picture shooting on Gower Street in L.A. and as I was watching them, they said “okay, stuntmen stand by your cars”. And these guys that looked like gladiators to me said “ok, start your engines...action!” They started crashing and rolling and getting in fights. I thought that’s what I want to do! How do I do that?

Later, I was at lunch with another fellow who was going to shoot two pictures up in Utah produced by Jack Nicholson and his buddy Monte Hellman. Jack was just getting started. He had done a couple of movies in the Philippines, but no one really knew who he was. So, he was going up to Utah and they needed a stuntman. So, I just lied and said “I’m a stuntman”. And I went on the interview with Jack and he said “can you get a horse to get sick, slow down, lay down, and die?” And I said “sure, that’s no problem.” And then I thought how am I going to do that? When we got there, I called a vet who came over and shot him up with a tranquilizer. So, the horse slowly got sleepy and laid down to fall asleep. The shot worked and they all thought I was great. So, here I was this stuntman on Jack Nicholson pictures. I didn't know that you're supposed to use a rubber gun. I had a real gun on my hip, so I fell off that stagecoach and I landed on that gun. I had a bruise all the way down to my knee from my hip. But I was just happy to do it.

I was just delighted that Daniel Boone the TV show came up to Kanab to film because they had four of the best stuntmen ever on that shoot. They wanted one more stuntman but they didn’t want to send back to Hollywood. They were talking to Jack and he said “we’ve got a great stuntman! He doesn’t use pads; he just falls on the ground!” They said, “send him over!” They knew I didn't know anything if I was doing that. But I went over and these were some of the best stuntmen in the business. After they teased me and made fun of me, they took me under their wing. From then on, they started teaching me the ropes and by the time I got back to L.A., I was a stuntman.

As you mentioned, you doubled for Jack Nicholson and even Cameron Mitchell, Robert Vaughn, and many others. Can you describe the unique relationship a stuntman has with the actor he or she doubles? It seems like there would be a special bond between the two.

GK: There is. A lot of them were pretty handy. Jack could do a fight pretty well and follow the choreography, but he would always defer to me to tell him if they were doing the punches right. So, I had a good relationship with Jack. I think I did four pictures doubling Jack. Some of them were really easy to get along with, but some of them would do stunts they were totally unqualified to do. Robert didn't want to do stunts or any of the action. Walking across the street was the biggest stunt he wanted to do. So, I got all kinds of work for Robert because he just didn't want to do it. We didn't become good pals, but we still had a good relationship anyway.

You've been in over 200 films. Out of all the stunts like falling off horses, car chases, motorcycle chases, fighting, or even fire scenes, what kind of stunt work do you think is the most challenging and the most rewarding in regards to the craft?

GK: One of the most popular things with the general movie-going public are car chases. They can be very, very, very dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. But if you know what you're doing, it is a thrill. I've done car chases in basically every major city in the US. I finally got to do one in New York. Ever since The French Connection, I wanted to do a car chase in New York. I finally got to do one on a Chinese picture called Guns of Dragon. We did a car chase ending in a car roll on the Brooklyn pier. So, that was a gas.

A lot of times, the directors and everyone on set is in a hurry because time is money. So, they have a tendency to try and push the stunts to go faster, whereas you want to take your time and really figure it out. By the time you do the stunt, you aren't thinking anymore - you already know what you're going to do and it's just instinct. But you work all that out ahead of time. It's like choreography. For the car chases, we would take little toy cars way before we did the chase and we would work out the change. Who's going to do a 180 here? Or who's going to do a roll? How is that going to happen?

A lot of directors, especially on low budgets, are pushing you to hurry up and just do it not realizing you can kill someone very quickly. So, car chases and high falls are the two that can frequently go bad for the dumbest of reasons. It’s probably too gruesome to get into, but there have been a few people who have died by missing their airbag or plowing into concrete. Then there was Dar Robinson who was the best high fall stuntman in the business. He invented the descender which is a harness wire that lowers you when you do a backward high fall and go all the way down. It will gradually lower you into the airbag so that you don't take a bad hit at the bottom and it’s pretty safe. However, he did a motorcycle movie and Dar wasn't that good on motorcycles. He was just doing a plain pass by on gravel. The motorcycles were passing by camera on speed and he hit the gravel and went over an embankment. He was impaled by a bunch of rocks and killed. So yeah, motorcycles, car chases, high falls, and even horses because actors are always saying they know horses but they don’t know horses. They may have ridden horses at a place where you can rent them for a day, but that’s a lot different than doing saddle falls or horse falls.

Can you talk about a general preparation process for stunts or maybe a specific scene that you've done that was really elaborate and challenging?

GK: I did a picture called Psych-Out with Richard Rush and Jack Nicholson. I did all the special effects in that movie plus the stunts and acted as well. I love that movie because I got to do so much. But long before we shot the movie, we would meet at the director's house. He'd throw a pool party and we'd meet there and go over things. Richard Rush was the director and he would always leave it up to the stunt coordinator. There’s usually a stunt coordinator on every picture who's really in charge of deciding what you're going to do. He hires the stuntmen and with them, he figures out what they’re going to do. And Richard always let us do that and even get our hands on the camera, which I liked because there’s nothing worse on film than what you call a “miss” - when you see someone throw a punch and the guy reacts to it, but you see all this air between the fist. So you know he didn't really hit him and it ruins the fight when you see that. So, where the camera goes is really important in order to hide that air and that illusion. On Psych-Out, we got together weeks ahead of time. I had my old friend Bud who was really handy. I hired him a lot because he could be depended on.

Speaking of Psych-Out,  I know you've worked with Richard Rush on several films like Hell’s Angels on Wheels and The Savage Seven. You once described Rush as the best director you ever worked with or worked for regarding his film Freebie and the Bean.  Why did you love working with him so much and can you discuss the specific stunt work on that film that really made it stick out for you?

GK: Richard was just a cut above all the other directors that were doing independent or low budget films. There was this great era of filmmaking that went on in the ‘60s where a lot of guys could get a camera and go out to shoot a film. And many of them didn't really know what they were doing. I worked with directors whose pictures would’ve totally bombed if it weren’t for the actors. I'm not going to name names but a lot of them. And way above them was Richard Rush because he just had a knack of making the cast and crew feel like what you were doing was really important. Even if it was a biker film, he would make you believe what you were doing was really important and the film was really important. He would stand and listen to you. Spielberg once said “directing is like being pecked to death”. And it is, because everybody's got a question. The director has to really have it together and Richard always did. He made it seem like he was really listening to you even if you were the coffee guy. He just had this way where he treated people so well, whereas a lot of directors just screamed and yelled even when they had no idea what they were yelling about. Richard never yelled except one time I heard him very quietly have an argument with a producer. Richard was just a class above everybody and made everybody on the film feel important.

Well, you are sort of a jack of all trades regarding the film industry. You also wrote and directed Rainy Day Friends in 1985 which won Best Special Stunt in a Motion Picture at the International Stuntman Awards. Can you talk about your experience directing as well as the stunt that won the award?

GK: When I wrote the script, I wanted to start a script with a stunt. So, I figured I needed to get my lead actor Esai Morales, who played a young Latino charter gang member. I wanted to get him in the hospital where they discover he has cancer.  I thought a good way to do that would be with my stunt. And I remembered as a kid, my mother pulling off in a car but I was hanging onto the bumper and the car dragged me for about two blocks before she realized I was in the rear holding on for my life. I remember that feeling and how everybody ran and when the car stopped, everyone asked if I was ok. I got a lot of attention and I thought someday I want to recreate that. And then when I wrote Rainy Day Friends, I’ll do it here and start with Esai being dragged by a pick-up truck down the freeway.

We hired a great stunt man to be dragged, a guy named Spiro Razatos, who went on to make a fortune as a really good stunt director. He did the Fast and Furious films with Vin Diesel. And it worked! We won out over a bunch of big pictures. We won Best Special Stunt which is the one all the stunt guys want to win because it's not only a stunt, it's a special stunt. Thanks for asking about that.

Yeah, of course. I didn't know that there was a personal influence from your childhood with that stunt. It kind of makes it even more special.

GK: Thank you. Yeah, true story.

I love that. How do you feel stunt work has evolved over time from the films of the late ‘60s and ‘70s to now? Do you think that the stunt work and the craft has changed in today's age of filmmaking?

GK: Yes, it's diminished somewhat because of CGI. Much of the action is done now on computer graphics. You don't have to do a high fall any more, you just stand in front of a green screen. So, a lot of the stuntmen are out of work to be frank with you, which is one of the reasons I like Quentin Tarantino. He doesn't like to use CGI and instead likes to use real stunt people, which I appreciate. Now there are a lot more stunt people but there are a lot fewer stunts. I guess I’m the last of the old breed. There’s thousands of stuntmen but just not that much work anymore.

That makes sense, and I agree. I really love and appreciate old school stunt work and practical effects. Speaking of Quentin Tarantino, his new film Once Upon a Time Hollywood is about to come out. It’s rumored that Brad Pitt's character is based upon you and your career. Is there a particular backstory with Quentin that resulted in this character?

GK: From what I understand, Quentin based him on me, my friend Bud Cardos, and Hal Needham. So, he based the character on three stuntmen. I’m dying to see the film because a lot of Brad Pitt's action takes place on Spahn Ranch. I had met Quentin in Austin. The phone rang and it was the head programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse saying we’re showing Savage Seven, one of your movies. One of Quentin’s favorite films was Savage Seven. So, they said “Quentin likes you, you're one of his favorite stuntmen and he wants you to come to the screening”. I thought they were putting me on. So, I said “yeah, sure ok”. I went to the screening and sure enough, there was Quentin! He came up and gave me a big hug and told me people love this movie. So, that was nice. He was very friendly.

About four months later, I was driving down Congress in Austin looking for an art gallery but I couldn't find it. So, I pulled into the parking lot of the Santa Fe Hotel. I was crossing through the Iobby and heard Quentin, who called me over to his table while he was eating lunch. I sat down and we talked for like two hours. And one of the things that impressed me was he knew every film that everyone ever made. He knew everybody on the film including the coffee guy or girl. We sat down and we did all the dialogue from those two Nicholson Westerns. They were one of his favorites and we did all the scenes at the table. Then I told him about my experience on the Spahn Ranch and he was fascinated. So, I'm anxious to see how much of that is included in the film because I understand he has some big scenes that take place on the Spahn Ranch with the character supposedly based on me, Bud, and Hal.

Yeah, I’m really intrigued about that. What kind of experiences did you have with the Manson Family while filming at Spahn Ranch?

GK: The Spahn Ranch was sort of a low budget place. There were three ranches where you could shoot Westerns because there would be no power lines or TV antennas. So, you could shoot period pieces there. There was the Iverson Ranch, Corriganville, and Spahn Ranch that motion pictures companies used all the time. I shot a lot at both Corriganville and Spahn Ranch. When we shot at Spahn Ranch, there were these raggedy sort of lower-class hippies that would come around and who lived in shacks. Spahn Ranch had horses people could rent out on the weekend and they had people who would take care of them. Old George Spahn, who owned the ranch, was blind. He couldn't really do much but he let Charlie and his gang stay there for free if they would help take care of the horses.

We were shooting one film there and the girls had always come down to where we were shooting and beg for our lunches asking if they can have our sandwiches or cupcakes. So, we would give them some of our food. We just thought they were strange little hippies that lived there. We were using the dune buggy at the time that belonged to my friend and fellow stuntman Bud Cardos. We were using it as a camera car and it broke down. So, I told Patricia Krenwinkel - I didn’t know who she really was but she came around and talked to me a lot - “do you know of a mechanic around here?” And she said that Charles Manson is a great mechanic. We didn’t know him from Adam. 

Charles Manson came over and he was this really tiny guy. He was not charismatic at all. He was barefoot and bare-chested. He looked like he needed a bath and a good meal. He said he could fix it but he would need seventy dollars upfront. I borrowed that from Bud and gave it to him, but the next day it had not been fixed. So, I said “get me Charlie Manson”. He came down and I told him “Bud Cardos is a really tough guy and you better fix this right now”. He fixed it right there and Bud was eventually happy with it.

Another thing that happened there was on that same film, Tex Watson who was one of Charlie’s friends and one of the killers, was always walking around with a gun on his hip and dressed in all black. He showed up on the set and was bothering the girls. The director Al Adamson said, “please get that guy off the set”. He left but eventually came back again and was bothering people even more. That time, Bud went over and grabbed Tex by the scruff of his neck and threw him off the set, about ten feet through the air. So, Tex went over the hill and we suddenly hear all this gunfire. One of the girls said, “yeah, that’s a real gun and real ammo.” Bud said, “I wish someone told me that before I threw him!”

So, yeah we interchanged with them but they wanted our lunches and a couple of guys wanted to be stunt guys. One of them was Juan Flynn from Argentina. He was a really good horseman. He hung out with Charlie but he didn’t like it and actually appeared to testify against him in court. We hired Juan because he was very handy. And then a would-be stunt man named Shorty Shea. He desperately wanted to be a stunt man and he would always show us his stunts, which were terrible. I mean, he would put a noose around his neck and tie it around the saddle horn of a horse. And then he would throw a rock at the horse which would drag him by his neck fifty or one hundred yards. He said, “I bet you can't do that.” I said, “You’re right, I wouldn’t even want to do that”. But he was a nice guy and I just read a book written by a fellow that knew Shorty Shea really well. Most people remember Manson for killing Sharon Tate, her friends, and the LaBiancas but he also killed Shorty Shea. He was a want-to-be stuntman who we all liked. It’s pretty sad. He so desperately wanted to be in the stunt business but he just didn’t have the skill or the knack. So, all his work hanging out at Spahn Ranch was hoping he could get hired doing stunts but it just didn’t happen.